La La Land (2017)

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Well, not for a long while have I been eagerly anticipating a movie like the release of this musical drama. Add on top the record-breaking Golden Globes haul then you have a very excited chap. For the most part this film delivers, it’s stylish, fun, heartfelt but I don’t agree with all the souped up hype it’s received.

After a minor amount of road-rage where aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Seb (Ryan Gosling) cross paths, they end up bumping into each other again and again which leads to a romance through the year. As they try following their dreams in LA it becomes a harder challenge to keep the love alive.

I have to say that I absolutely adored the first half or so of this film. It harks back to that classic glitz and glamour of Hollywood old with a neat dose of a modern touch thanks to the musical and confident direction from Damien Chazelle. Just from the sweeping opening on a Los Angeles highway to the delicate changes in lighting, the songs and story begin with a bang.

It helps that we get brilliant performances and a clear chemistry between the two main characters but also the style adds a neat note to the song-sheet that is this feature. There’s times that it looks and sounds like a studio set production and you’d expect Fred Astaire to come tap dancing in. The writing by Chazelle, is for the most part a well handled story that lends a two-sided coin to the LA lifestyle but with an obvious landing on dreams to follow and achieve.

As I sat in my seat I found myself hooked and smiling along to a wonderful series of scenes but then annoyingly, there came a specific moment where I even felt myself disengaging and from then on, the writing becomes very generic and almost cliched. It drifts into a romantic plot you’d expect to find in every other manically churned out rom-com. This frustrated me because I was expecting it to keep going with the gleeful whizz of CinemaScope delight but instead…it wains.

It is almost saved as we get a short burst of style near the end showing a quick run of events. So yes I agree it’s a fantastically well made and enchanting film, it deserved 3 perhaps 4 of the Globes it picked up out of 7. This is obviously, as I realised as they were winning, a case of the voters loving films that celebrate America or the US saving the day -(note Argo winning Best Picture)

Song wise, ‘Another of Day of Sun’ is jolly, sun-drenched and a perfect, literally perfect way to start a film of this genre. ‘City of Stars’ is sung well and has a melancholy yet magical sound but I don’t see how that gets the attention when Stone’s ‘Audition’ song is better performed and has better lyrics. Though it’s naff for jazz and a typical Top 40’s track, John Legend’s performance of ‘Start a Fire’ works well in showcasing the path Seb is taking away from his dream.

I’m not a total grouch because I did enjoy the majority of the film, I just don’t feel it should have broke GG records and I hope the Oscars gives some variety because ‘La La Land’ does swerve into a nearly boring not great second half.

7/10

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

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I do enjoy the Coen Brothers work, but I can’t say I’m gushing over this latest picture. It’s fun in places and soars because of a fabulous cast but I felt it was perhaps scattered too much and bereft of a gripping plot.

We find ourselves in the 1950’s and mostly follow Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood honcho who helps stars and productions keep good press. That could become tricky though as feature star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) gets kidnapped in the midst of filming a religious epic called ‘Hail, Caesar!’. A group calling themselves The Future want money for his release and so Mannix must try to get Whitlock back.

Joel and Ethan Coen direct and write this lark and do so with a clear fondness for the way movies come together. The laughs can be found as actors or directors guffaw over choices, most explicitly in the repetitive yet genius scene between Ralph Fiennes’ directing worry with Alden Ehrenreich’s cowboy icon of Hobie Doyle. The Coen’s flit between different sound stages letting us peek at differing productions which are amusing and interesting but this back and forth never gives the movie a sense of story or tension when there could have been. Without much of a plot this movie does look and sound more like a series of images to be loved by critics or classic film fanatics.

Roger Deakins, who really needs an Oscar by now, is on top form capturing wonder in this filmy feature. The glorious epic feel of the Romans sweeping through the screen or the synchronised swimmers gloriously twirling and floating around bombshell actress DeeAnna Moran played by bombshell actress Scarlett Johansson. It looks all the way through like a glorious picture of old, a love letter to the way movies used to be made.

The film did make me chuckle and grin but I never belted a laugh, and nor did many in the audience either, I feel this movie is more subdued and lacking of an engaging narrative than it should be. The angles it bounces off in become so many that characters are lost to minimal moments making them almost unnecessary. We see ideas skewed in from journalist stories, Capitalist thoughts, kidnap, pregnancy fixing, Communism and movie making that it doesn’t ever mesh, each point just hangs there never defined.

The characters are amusing though, their flourishes and their names being so wonderfully goofy and studio send ups. Thora/Thessaly Thacker, Burt Gurney and the winner – Laurence Laurentz. The dance number is toe-tappingly silly, Channing Tatum’s blonde flick and look backs are hilariously over the top and most character looks fall delightfully under the gormless idiot look that the Coen’s so brilliantly encapsulate in their writing. Only a shame that the characters aren’t backed up by a fun or rewarding plot.

Josh Brolin practically does everything as we see him do all the work, finding himself here there and everywhere trying to solve problems and ultimately bring back Baird. He is a straight man, not really demonstrating much comedy as George Clooney does that, going back to his ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ routine to play buffoonish and moronic. It’s not as good as that film or his performance in ‘Burn After Reading’ either but he is still having a ball. Alden Ehrenreich will be one to watch, he plays the singing Western star with such grounded believability that when he steps out of his comfort zone you feel for him, he ends up being the hero of the piece in my mind. Ralph Fiennes once again proves his unquestionable prowess for comic timing, in his two main scenes his face speaks volumes and his delivery adds even more. Scarlett Johansson pulls the cheesy starlet grin with no depth as the mermaid and then counters with a thick accent and a penchant for problems. Tilda Swinton fans get two for the price of one as she portrays twin journalists with a sense of striking fashion and similarly striking headlines. Frances McDormand is a smoking, scarf wearing editor that is merely a cameo but brings in one of the better moments as we see how well the Coen Bros can do dark material. Channing Tatum tap dances his way through as a sailor and more. Hail, Dumbledore! We even get Michael Gambon as a narrator just to make this whole thing more starry and more filmy filmy.

Flecks of brilliance and movie making behind the scenes comedy but a portion empty and flat for my liking. This Coen outing is boosted by a grand cast and a glowing adoration to movies of the golden era.

6.5/10

Trumbo (2016)

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By the books but still fascinating, this biographical drama tells us about a man that some may know but plenty won’t have. I like films…a lot but I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of Dalton Trumbo and the prejudices he was put through. This is a good looking film with a proper good lead but it’s not always engaging.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is a well voiced member of the Communist Party of the USA along with 9 other writers. Though it being 1949 and Russia no longer an ally thanks to threats of Cold War, Trumbo is soon blacklisted and imprisoned for his stance though that won’t stop him writing some of the most loved movies of the classic Hollywood era.

John McNamara has a lot of history with television writing and producing and perhaps that’s why this feature feels or rather, sounds like a TV movie. It has all those elements as we follow Trumbo in the beginning, see his political views, watch him interact in jail and then flourish even when he should be waning thanks to his blacklisted status. It’s an interesting film to a point, mostly in learning about this incredible man but it’s never grand or romantic or captivating like ‘Spartacus’ or ‘Roman Holiday’ are. This work about Dalton Trumbo doesn’t ring like a cinematic gem, more a small screen network filler.

Jay Roach directs this drama well, the centre focus is of course on Trumbo and how he behaves which is at a point great because it connects us to him but even when they attempt to show his flaws, they’re never fully formed making him too pushed onto us. It’s not like they’re showing one side of the story as we all know about Communism but we don’t all know about that when located in the Hollywood industry. Sadly we never really see the truth of Trumbo’s defending of brutal ideals as everyone on his side is painted as innocent. Of course I never knew what he said or what other figures never said, e.g. the case of Edward G. Robinson, but I looked into the people of this movie because of how easily likable they made the Communist side which is a little too simple.

Roach does give this film a good twist of lightness even amongst the darkness of Trumbo’s forced secretive writings. There is a spectacle involved as we see him journey to typing Oscar winning movies and how that effects people on either side of the party he belongs to. But for me the strongest element of the movie isn’t the factual elements needed to be told but the charisma and heart located in the acting department.

Bryan Cranston embodies the hunched writer with moustached aptitude, he is the true decorative trophy on this film’s mantelpiece. Cranston does great things in making you look past the uneven tone of the film and the televisual atmosphere it presents because he has energy, a spark of wit and talent just like the real life Trumbo. Michael Stuhlbarg shines as Edward G. Robinson, looking the part and giving dramatical urgency in his call up to reveal damning (if inaccurate) truths about who he knows. Diane Lane is the sturdy rock of this film, always being there even when she fears the man she loves is turning. Lane deserves more credit because though she’s not always on screen she keeps the family image believable. Louis C.K is smart and funny as the light balance to Trumbo’s persona though weirdly he’s a fictional character which doesn’t help in making this film feel less terrestrial. Elle Fanning steps in as the grown up daughter in a moment that really stuns as to how someone so short and different to Fanning grew to become Fanning but that moment aside she is a bright face to this starry cast and she notably displays the same motivation and active behaviour of Trumbo. Helen Mirren wavers in her accent, sounding British from time to time but she never drops in being the bitchy headline writing queen and almost steals the show with her ever-changing hats.

So, where the poster quote from Deadline reads that this is “one of the year’s must-see pictures”, I’d say that it’s only recommendable for people that admire the cinema and behind the scenes talent that produced the sparkle of Hollywood of old, otherwise it’s a film with great acting but a pedestrian TV vibe.

6/10

Snowpiercer (2013)

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This is just a straight up brilliant movie that feels different and exciting. There are elements that make you think of other films but on the whole this sci-fi bleak future environment we’re presented with has the genius charm of being fresh and interesting. The reliance on a uprising rebellion makes for a dramatic and engaging narrative and the action mixed into this concoction of style and wonder adds that extra wow factor.

Directed by Bong Joon-Ho the plot of the movie begins with a brief point letting us know that an action to try and prevent global warming has in fact left the whole world blanketed in ice and snow. The only population left are surviving in class systems on a train that cycles round a track year after year. The story here finds Curtis (Chris Evans) working with an elder leader, Gilliam (John Hurt), his friend and second in command Edgar (Jamie Bell) and others from the rear of the train to revolt against the better off members from the front of the train.

The dystopian landscape that we see settles the film into that worrying oppressive mood needed to run alongside the story of back vs front. The snowy mountains and ice covered buildings look good but unlike other films that may rely on the CGI of this world, this movie has its heart in the midst of the shuttling train. It likes to focus on the work of the characters moving forward and I love it for focusing on this more than the action and special effects it could have centred on. The train becomes a symbol of order, of twisted beliefs of ecosystems to have weak seen as the feet and the upper classes seen in colourful attire as the head. It’s an obvious way of setting up differences but it works and there’s more grounded harsh realities for Curtis and the others to face as they try and upturn this preordained structure.

A story written by Joon-Ho and based on a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette lets the audience uncover moments of shocking truths with the characters from the tail of the train. A harrowing past concerning Curtis and how he came to know Edgar and see Gilliam as the wise giving leader is hard to hear but makes for meaty backstory and gives Curtis that flaw needed to help him become a more rounded character to empathise with, if he becomes too perfect as this leader taking them to the front then it doesn’t work. This history of his comes at the right moment to understand more of the man. The protein blocks are a jello like grot that hide a secret, passed back metal tubes with secreted messages become a tool of aide but mystery too. It’s a film of layers leading us to get into the story more as the plot unravels.

There’s a true weird haunting touch to the proceedings as the higher up figures speak of order and the almighty Wilford as a god. The scene in the school segment of the train is especially odd. The teacher is brilliantly played as the sweet young friendly type but her message echoed creepily by the children becomes unnerving as they join in chorus of praising Wilfred and saying ice is death. There’s a steady stream of violent action as Curtis and his troop make their way but obviously numbers dwindle and he comes across enemies attempting to take him out. Uses of power become a bloody tool for the higher up figures to get what they want and that builds up the weird vision of this train further.

Action does come in a decent flow and the fight scenes feel even more cool in the changing sections of the train, moving from gardens to aquariums and from saunas to a nightclub this train offers up a massive treat of visuals all still with that hint of uncomfort as we know the powers that be on this train are crazed in treating the back lot like animals. The yellow tinged fight in the sauna room is moody and brilliant and it comes with the needed tension of who is behind doors and who will survive? The action all comes to a concerning end as a slowed down rabble of party goers in steampunk-esque costumes face down the Kronol obsessed Namgoong Minsu and Yona, a father/daughter team imprisoned in metal drawers and addicted to a green blocky drug. The near end is slightly alarming as a moment of welcomed alone time for Curtis could leave him coming around to the ideas of Wilfred and the hum of the engine starts turning into a symbol of his mind working as he contemplates what to do.

Chris Evans can of course play the stocky hero type and he does that here but he plays a more damaged hero and the weakness he shows when divulging his boarding of the tran to Namgoong Minsu is a vulnerable streak that gives his performance a boost of three dimensional edge. John Hurt is the perfect casting choice for the smart leader seeking to do the best though his character later on becomes a more complex one too as we hear more about him. Tilda Swinton who plays Mason a minister and high in command subject of Wilfred is amazing. She gets into any character she plays and the kooky nature of her in this makes her even more grotesque and deranged. It’s a great performance that you can’t help but enjoy. The reveal of Wilfred is another sublime casting decision but I won’t comment on this further just incase you don’t know who plays the engine watcher. It’s a film stuffed full with cast that help elevate the look and feel of the film and they work together masterfully to create a unique tale of revolution.

It’s a fantastical movie that arrives with a damning new ice age and the sci-fi angle of a harsh future and dangerous new world aboard a train makes for a fascinating hybrid of genres. You can definitely tell the plot is based upon a graphic novel which is never a bad thing. Of course the film may not be overly gentle in telling us what is going on and the moving forward revolt is an easy enough story momentum but it makes for a fun, dark sequence of events. I’ve seen so much of this film being reviewed lately and it deserves the wide release it hasn’t got so far. It’s one of the best movies I’ve watched this year, honestly. Even though it comes with a vague ‘Hunger Games’ set up of divided fractions and a ‘Raid’ like upheaval of getting around one place it feels refreshing to see a destroyed Earth movie and humanity tale done so effectively.

A debut majority English speaking film for the South Korean director that delivers on suspense, thrills and spectacle. A film shining in doing something unlike the same gunk that Hollywood churns out.

8.5/10

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

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A gorgeous classic if not one that questions belief in highly unbelievable properties of character. The romantic element plays nicely against the comedy backdrop of the increasing situation in Holly Golightly’s quest for money and marriage and even with a usual Hollywood ending, what comes before makes the film the genuine delight it still is.

Holly Golightly has fled from a previous less extravagant life and now spends her time in New York hanging outside the jewelry store – Tiffany and Co. A new neighbour enters her building and life and becomes a friend and symbolic mirage of her brother. They become close and soon Paul Varjak finds out more about Golightly’s life and her obsession to find a rich man could drive them apart.

Firstly, the music is simple but effective in pretty much only using variations of the ‘Moon River’ score to play over scenes. It’s great in setting a trend and by recognising the tune but hearing it as mellower or faster makes you appreciate the visuals on screen as something sadder or more jolly. The peak of all of this though is in hearing words placed to the music as we first hear and then see Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) sing ‘Moon River’. Hepburn is enchanting and before we along with Varjak (George Peppard) we can hear her beautiful tones wafting through the scene. Then there she is sitting at the window with a guitar and looking the most casual we see her throughout the movie. A calm and gentle girl next door image as Varjak falls in love with his downstairs neighbour. A haunting and subtly glorious song sung to sweet heaven by Hepburn.

The comedy throughout is in scenarios of exaggerated circumstances and mostly between Holly and Paul. The entire scene with them going round the city taking it in turns to do something they’ve never done before is brilliant. The sshing in the library, the conversation about what 10 dollars can buy them in Tiffany’s and then the attempt to steal something at a cheap store is highly amusing. The simple turning around of them wearing cartoon masks is hilarious and charming and you can’t help but fall in love with them through the comedic adventure they’re sharing. There’s a sort of comedy in the police turning up at Golightly’s party as she gets away, even pointing to her place to the police as she goes. The biggest fail in in this movie is in the attempt at comedy in Mickey Rooney’s character of I.Y. Yunioshi, the Japanese upstairs tenant who is so over the top that it becomes a grotesque caricature of Asian people, especially with the slapstick accidents afforded to Yunioshi in his flat and the fake upper teeth that send him flying over a cliff’s edge into needless send up. At the time it may have hit the mark but now it’s offensive. It’s a sad racial joke causing cringeworthy reactions everytime he appears, a big thing in showing how times have changed.

The romance is cliched and especially the kissing in the rain feels like a highly expected final image to go for but it’s true that you can’t help but want Paul to get together with Holly. Through all her upended life and one of a kind apartment with a phone in a suitcase and a shoe in a bouquet of fruit she deserves love and not money. The payoffs she gets from a criminal in jail, the money she desires from a Rich American and a Brazilian. Money is the biggest card played in this film with Golightly wanting it and trying to save for the return of her Army fighting brother and Paul trying to write again after not publishing anything for a while. A sponsor pays him so in some sense the two of them are the same in needing money and getting paid amounts through their life. In the end Paul proclaims how she can’t escape herself as she’s trapped in her own cage. A clever analogy of her close mindedness in only wishing for wealth. The most poignant moment after this declaration in the back of a cab is the arrival of Golightly’s husband who loves her and wants his past woman back, she gets rid of him not wanting to look back. Her life that she can see is just money, marriage and Tiffany’s where she’s always happy. The fact she always says she’s happy is a way to realise she probably isn’t and it’s the touching reminder as Paul throws her the engraved Cracker Jack ring that she was happiest with him and she wants him after all.

It’s also a sad comparison in Golightly being as nameless as her cat. They belong to nobody she believes yet soon we realise Paul wants her to belong to him and she can’t see that as right, she doesn’t think people should belong to anybody. Though we know they should as the cat sadly looks through the rain, after being dumped out by Holly, at the taxi as it drives off, a tool to show that this cat does belong to someone and that’s Holly and so too must Holly belong to someone at that’s the man she met from the beginning. A fun and fancy relationship that needn’t depend on money and therefore is one that deserves to work.

Audrey Hepburn is utterly perfect in this role as someone extrovert yet vulnerable. She acts the highs and lows of Golightly with conviction and the moment she receives the telegram is heartbreaking as you guess what it reads. She is constantly glamorous and radiant. A performance of flirty playful characteristics as she tries to find the right rich man yet her strongest moments are when she is side by side with Paul as this is the man she should really be with. The camera helps show the perfection of Hepburn as when we get close ups the background is blurred, almost looking smudged as if to highlight the beauty of Hepburn even more. She exudes a quirky fun nature as she first meets Paul, trying to get dressed and scoot around her place finding things. The way she acts the speeches about the mean reds and blues is powerful, so too with the numerous mentions of the rats and super rats in her life. She’s an over the top character but grounded as much as can be thanks to Hepburn’s performance.

A true Hollywood classic in an iconic role for Audrey Hepburn that mixes together a concoction of romance and comedy to tell a sometimes unbelievable yet engaging story of love and identity.

7.5/10